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Kootenai County school districts rework plans – or not – as COVID-19 crisis in community grows

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 23, 2020

 (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
(Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Confronted with sharply rising cases of COVID-19, the three largest school districts in Kootenai County responded Friday with diverse approaches to the crisis.

One day after the Panhandle Health District moved the county into its highest-risk category, the Post Falls school board voted to move back to a hybrid learning model.

On the same day, trustees at Coeur d’Alene and Lakeland affirmed earlier decisions that leave most students in class for the majority of the school week.

“It certainly has been an interesting time to be a school trustee,” said Casey Morrisroe, chair of the board in Coeur d’Alene, which is now in its fourth different learning model since classes opened Sept. 14.

Officially, Morrisroe and his colleagues didn’t take any action Friday night; they merely affirmed a decision made Monday to move high-school students back to two days a week in buildings and the rest online.

Elementary and middle school students, plus those at Venture High School, will continue to attend school four days a week. That’s a step back from full in-person learning that began Oct. 5, but an improvement over the twice-a-week model adopted at the start of the school year.

In a letter to families sent Friday night, the district also made it clear that masks or face coverings would still be required, despite the health district having dropped its mask mandate Thursday.

“The policy is specific to Coeur d’Alene Public Schools and is independent of any other mask requirement,” the letter said.

Superintendent Steve Cook opened the meeting by sharing more deflating county COVID-19 numbers in the wake of Thursday’s move by the health district, including 140 new cases and a 17% positivity rate among those tested.

“This was a dramatic increase,” Cook told the board. “There are a lot of moving parts that warrant a discussion.”

However, Cook said he was comforted by what he called a “sense of calm and a sense of resilience” at Coeur d’Alene and Lake City high schools, where the bulk of the positive tests and quarantines have occurred.

Cook also said coordinating efforts at the elementary level were encouraging.

That left the middle schools, which this week have seen a COVID spike – two cases and 36 people quarantined at Woodland, plus one case and 17 quarantines at Canfield.

But ultimately, the board decided to keep middle schoolers on the same schedule as K-5 students.

Morrisroe noted district-wide, all but one case was contracted outside of school.

In an appeal to the larger community, Morrisroe continued: “We need your help and our businesses need your help. Our children can’t afford another shutdown and neither can our businesses. I’m begging our civic and business leaders and our community to come together and take the necessary precautions to get us back on track.”

A few hours earlier, the Post Falls school board voted 5-0 to move back to a hybrid learning model next week.

High school students will revert to the hybrid model immediately and the rest Wednesday.

In Post Falls, Superintendent Dena Naccarato’s announcement that 170 students are currently in quarantine spurred a sense of urgency.

A week ago, that number was 30.

Only 12 people have confirmed positive tests for COVID; however, Naccarato said pending tests mightshow more.

Blessed with hindsight, board members believe they moved too quickly to return to full in-person learning Oct. 12. More students in classrooms meant more chances for COVID-19 to spread.

Naccarato shared a compelling story of a student who returned from quarantine, then was sent home again after another close contact with someone who later tested positive.

Trustees broadly agreed with Naccarato’s conclusion that in the face of rising caseloads, less is more – a hybrid model will lead to fewer kids in quarantine.

“We’re all dong the best we can in a situation we don’t have any control over, but to continue in yellow is to not allow kids to continue to attend school on a regular basis,” Naccarato said.

“I don’t believe that yellow provides a consistent education moving forward.”

The trustees had a more difficult time with the issue of masks. Required under the county’s former mandate, they are now only strongly recommended.

With the lifting of the countywide mask mandate by the Panhandle Health District, schools were left to make their own decisions.

“We had a great deal of compliance today,” Naccarato said. “The vast majority were still wearing masks.”

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